Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Act yourself into feeling

On the way back from Brevard Janet and I were listening to more of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. In one section Gladwell talks extensively about the work of two psychologists who intensively studied the face and all its possible expressions. They knew that they could discover all kinds of information if they could just decipher all the minute, sometimes split-second expressions that occur on people's faces. Or, more accurately, they were trying to figure out how we get all that valuable information all the time, since being able to read someone's face is functionally indistinguishable from mind-reading, and yet we do it on a daily basis.

As a part of their research, the psychologists needed to learn how to make all the expressions they were studying. They spent hours watching each other making the expressions, learning how to do them at will and learning how to recognize them immediately. An unintended and totally unexpected side-effect, though, was that when they spent long periods of time making expressions of pain or fear, they really started to feel bad. Once they realized what was happening to them, they did formal studies with other subjects to prove it: making the facial expressions of certain emotions would completely mimic the physiological effects of actually having the emotions spontaneously. The researchers concluded that the expressions on the face were not merely communicating the emotion; they actually were the emotion, or some critical part of it.

These conclusions are interesting at a philosophical level, because they are a step towards resolving the connection between the body and the mind. I'm not really thinking about resolving classic mind-body dualism, a la Decartes. Even the prominent spiritual thinkers of our day do not believe that the body is a machine inhabited by a ghost. Either the mind is an emerging property of the body (as the materialists would have it), or the body is a corser, more obvious manifestion of a reality that has more subtle, encompassing aspects (as the integral spirituality of Ken Wilber would suggest). Either way, there is no separation between mind and body; they are two aspects of the same entity.

No, I'm thinking more of the practical and moral implications of this research. I'm especially thinking of the whole question of "faith versus works", or intent versus action. Which is more important: your intent and desire to do good, or the actual good works themselves? The answer is both, but not for the reasons most people assume. Intent and action are both important because they are two aspects of the same reality. What you believe and desire will affect what you do. What you do will also affect your beliefs and desires.

For years, people have been consciously aware of the connection between thoughts and actions, but they have been working it in only one direction (at least, in the religious and spiritual realm). Whether it's a "power of positive thinking" Christianity, or a "I create my own reality" New Age practice, its all trying to use the mind to enact tangible results in the world. Everyone presumes that this must be easier -- after all, isn't it easier to imagine yourself slim and happy and successful, rather than really be slim and happy and successful?

Well, actually, no. The mind is excruciatingly difficult to control, as almost any unhappy person will tell you. As it turns out, it is much easier to manipulate gross action, and to let that action affect the mind, rather than the other way around. "Assume a virtue, if thou hast it not," declares Hamlet. We have to mind our actions, being faithful in little, because it affects our soul much more immediately than we imagined.

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